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Remembering Chuck Yeager, Pilot Who Broke The Sound Barrier

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Chuck Yeager, the legendary aviator and test pilot who was the first to break the sound barrier, died yesterday in Los Angeles. He was 97. Yeager enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941 as an airplane mechanic and retired as an Air Force brigadier general in 1975. His story was popularized in Tom Wolfe's book "The Right Stuff." Yeager was a fighter pilot in World War II and was shot down in France, where he evaded capture and returned to the air. After surviving many dogfights, he took on another risky job testing high-performance aircraft, where he soon became known as America's top test pilot. He was the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound on October 14, 1947. Here's a scene from the film "The Right Stuff." Sam Shepard plays Chuck Yeager.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE RIGHT STUFF")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey there, Yeager.

SAM SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) Sir.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We were just talking to Slick here about the sound barrier.

SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) Is that right?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) And we feel that the X-1 is ready to have a go at it.

WILLIAM RUSS: (As Slick Goodlin) We think the X-1's got the answer to go beyond Mach 1.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) If there is any beyond. So what do you think, Yeager?

SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) Well, I'll tell you what. Half these engineers never been off the ground, you know? I mean, they're liable to tell you that the sound barrier is a brick wall in the sky. It'll rip your ears off if you try to go through it. If you ask me, I don't believe the damn thing even exists.

RUSS: (As Slick Goodlin) Waitress, a drink for Mr. Yeager here.

SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) No, thanks. I've got one.

RUSS: (As Slick Goodlin) So do you think you want to have a go at it?

SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) I might.

RUSS: (As Slick Goodlin) But since, as you say, this sound barrier doesn't really exist, how much...

SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) How much you got? No, I'm just joking. The Air Force is paying me already. Ain't that right, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, sure, Yeager, but...

SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) So when do we go?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, how about tomorrow morning?

SHEPARD: (As Chuck Yeager) I'll be there.

DAVIES: When Terry spoke with Chuck Yeager in 1988, she asked him whether he knew what the sound barrier was when he took on the assignment of trying to break it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHUCK YEAGER: Sure. I knew the laws of nature, that sound travels at some 760 miles an hour at sea level and some 660 miles an hour at 35,000 feet higher. I also knew we had buffeting problems because of shock waves because I experienced those in air combat, you know, in World War II, when I was flying Mustangs over Germany. I also experienced it in the early jets, the P-80s and P-84s. I knew exactly what the problem was.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: So what image did you have in your mind about breaking the sound barrier? For civilians like us, you almost see this invisible shield or a wall that somebody will be penetrating as they break it.

YEAGER: Yeah, I didn't, you know, give any thought to it, to tell you the truth, Terry, because I was pretty well duty-oriented at that time. I'd been in a war where, you know, a lot of guys get killed, but I'd learned to discipline myself to concentrate on what you're doing and forget about the outcome because you can't do an awful lot about it anyway. So when we started the X-1 program, yeah, I had no idea what I would run into. But the point is I could care less, to tell you the truth. I just had to press on with my mission, so...

GROSS: The plane that you broke the sound barrier in, the X-1, had a nose cone that was designed like a bullet. How come?

YEAGER: Yeah, because they knew that bullets flew faster than sound. And the ogive or shape of the fuselage of the X-1 was shaped like a 50-caliber bullet. And that's just common sense because, like I say, we're flying in the area of unknowns.

GROSS: Was it comfortable where you'd have to sit in...

YEAGER: Well, no, it was very uncomfortable. And the reason was we had no source of power in the X-1. We used compressed nitrogen gas to do all the work, like raise and lower the gear and pressurize the liquid oxygen tanks, which - incidentally, they had no seat in the X-1. You sat with your back against the bulkhead, which contained the liquid oxygen. And the temperature of the liquid oxygen was 290 degrees below zero. And it's one of the coldest cockpits I've ever been in in my life. And you sat on the floor. And your knees were higher than your rear end, so you could pull high Gs without blacking out. And you couldn't see too well out of it. But you've got to remember it was a research airplane, and it was built in 1944.

GROSS: When you were flying it, what indications would you have? What kind of meters would tell you when you...

YEAGER: Well...

GROSS: ...Had actually broken the sound barrier?

YEAGER: Well, I had an altimeter told me how high I was. I had an indicated air speed, and that told me how fast I was going through the air in miles per hour. But the one thing that we relied on was a Mach meter that told us what our percentage was in relationship to the speed of sound. For instance, Mach 1 is the speed of sound at the altitude you're flying. And if you're going .9 Mach, that's 90% of the speed of sound. I had a Mach meter that went up to 1.0, and the day that I actually broke Mach 1, I sat there and watched that Mach meter build up, you know, since we'd been up to about 94 - .94 or .95 Mach number on the previous flight. And I watched it build up. And when it got up to about .96 - and that buffeting was quite heavy on the airplane. It was shaking pretty bad. But then at that point, the Mach meter went off the scale. And if I extrapolated, you know, it'd be about 1.06, but the Mach meter only went to 1.0. But when it did, all the buffeting smoothed out, which was an indication that we had, you know, supersonic flow over the whole airplane, meaning that it was flying at supersonic speeds. And when this happened, we made the first sonic boom there at Edwards. And that's about the way it happened.

GROSS: Could you hear the sonic boom from the plane?

YEAGER: No. No. You're in the airplane, which is in a pressurized cockpit. And you get a helmet on and oxygen mask and - and no, you're making the shockwave. It's on your airplane. And you don't hear a shock with that or sonic boom.

GROSS: When you realized that you'd broken the speed of sound, that your mission was accomplished, did you stay up in the air a while and just have a good time and celebrate?

YEAGER: I didn't - no, you can't stay up because - see - a rocket - you burn out all of your fuel. It only had - last 2 1/2 minutes. And then you're gliding down to make a deadstick landing on Rogers Dry Lake out there at Edwards, or then Muroc Air Base. But I - sure, I was elated. I did a couple of rolls. And when I got down, since I was pretty well beat up from a horseback riding accident a couple days before, I was kind of bushed. And also, you're sitting in that cold airplane. You really get cold-soaked. And it's good to get out into the warm sun. And, you know - and also their program was classified, so it's not exactly as the film "The Right Stuff" depicts it. But we knew it was classified. And just a couple three of us had a little party that night - I mean, big party, if you're going to call it that.

GROSS: What were the reasons for classifying it? Why was it so top secret?

YEAGER: Because of what we found out. And the reason was, if you recall, once we got into the region of the speed of sound, we lost our elevator effectiveness. Terry, this may get a little technical, but all airplanes - light airplanes, if you looked at them - they have a horizontal stabilizer or tail. And on the trailing edge of that horizontal stabilizer in the elevators are flippers. And when you move the control stick back, that elevator goes up. And that's what controls the attitude of your airplane. It makes the nose go up or go down. And when we got into a - up to about .93 Mach number or 93% of the speed of sound, we lost the effectiveness of that elevator on the X-1, and we couldn't control our airplane. But we had built a capability into the X-1 of moving the whole horizontal stabilizer or tail plane. And we found out that, lo and behold, we could control the X-1 through Mach 1 with that horizontal stabilizer. Now, it was interesting to me. When that happened, we found that out - then, of course, we started building flying tails on our airplanes that - our combat airplanes were built three or four years later. And it was amusing to me to find out that the British and the French and the Soviet Union didn't find out that little trick for five years. That was the reason it was classified and rightly so.

GROSS: Now, this is - this is a very exciting time, when you were flying these test missions. You had a few close calls, though, when you were flying the X-1 and the X-1A. There was one time - I think it was in the X-1A, which was the follow-up plane to the X-1 - where you had gotten too high and...

YEAGER: Well...

GROSS: Yeah.

YEAGER: ...Too fast, Terry. See - in those days, back in the late '40s, early '50s, we were - a lot of milestones to be broken. And we were moving out in speed. We had broken Mach 1 in 1947. And 1953 rolled up, and we were working up above Mach 2. And we were just trying to go faster and faster to open up the universe, and the X-1A - I only made four flights in it. But on that particular flight, I'm setting it some, you know, 80,000 feet going 2.5 Mach number, or 2 1/2 times the speed of sound - around 1,600 miles an hour. And we found out in that - during that flight that the tail was not big enough on the X-1 to stabilize it. Like, the vertical stabilizer and horizontal stabilizer didn't keep the airplane going straight ahead when we got out beyond 2.3 Mach number. And the airplane just swapped ends and went through some wild gyrations. And back in those days, we didn't have ejection seats, so - and you were pretty well locked in to the airplane and couldn't get out. So you have to ride it down. And yes, I was a little apprehensive about where I was going to hit in the high Sierras out there. But fortunately, I stayed with the airplane and had enough instinct to recover from an inverted spin and then pop it out of the normal spin and find Rogers Dry Lake and come back and land. And I tell you it was a wild ride. But I didn't pay any attention to the ground because, you know, there's nothing you can do about hitting it anyway. The way I look at it, you either do, or you don't. And, you know, if you don't, you live happily ever after.

DAVIES: Chuck Yeager speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1988. Yeager died yesterday at the age of 97.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, we speak with attorney Brittany Barnett, who works on behalf of people sentenced to life under drug laws later regarded as unfair and unconstitutional. She started that work after her mother was convicted of a nonviolent crack-related offense. Seven of Barnett's clients were granted clemency by President Obama and one by President Trump. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.